If Photoshop Is Banned in Advertising, It'll Be Julia Roberts' Fault

Last Updated Jul 28, 2011 3:17 PM EDT

Two rulings by a U.K. advertising watchdog that found the use of Photoshop on Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington made ads for L'Oreal/Lancome and Maybelline inherently misleading should be regarded with trepidation by the global ad business. This could lead to the outlawing of the photo editing techniques that Madison Avenue has traditionally relied upon in some countries, maybe even in the U.S.

There is a growing constituency of people who believe the use of Photoshop -- cosmetic and fashion ads especially -- is misleading or unethical and should either be banned or come with required disclosures warning consumers that the images have been retouched and airbrushed. Consider:

  • The U.K. ruling, by the Advertising Standards Authority, upheld the two complaints by MP Jo Swinson. The companies were banned from using them. Although the ASA is a self-regulating industry body and not a government agency, companies disobey its rulings at their peril. It is also ominous for the ad agency business that the complaints came from a member of the ruling government party and not a member of the public or a rival company.
  • In 2009, "The Ethicist," a widely read column in The New York Times that debates the morality of our modern faults and foibles, declared that use of Photoshop was "false advertising."
  • In France, 50 politicians signed a bill asking for a "health warning" on ads featuring a photo of a model that has been retouched so that women know they cannot actually change their bodies to look like that.
  • In the U.S., the FTC tightened regulations on the use of celebrities in advertising to hold famous people accountable for misleading statements they make in ads.
  • And the fashion industry has spent years trying to normalize anorexia among models and the consumers who buy their labels.
Advertisers should note that the ASA rulings found the use of photo retouching "misleading" per se. In the Maybelline ad:
We noted, however, that the area around the model's left eye had been digitally re-touched and we considered that the text had drawn particular attention to the product's effect in this area.
... We therefore concluded that the ad was likely to mislead.
In the L'Oreal ad:
While Lancôme provided detail on the techniques they used, we noted that we had not been provided with information that allowed us to see what effect those enhancements had on the final image. ... on the basis of the evidence we had received we could not conclude that the ad image accurately illustrated what effect the product could achieve, and that the image had not been exaggerated by digital post production techniques. We therefore concluded the ad was misleading.
It is not hard to imagine the logic of the above being incorporated into false advertising and comparative advertising claims in the U.S., two areas which are already heavily litigated in the federal courts. If a federal judge were ever to allow a false advertising case to proceed on the basis that use of post-production techniques on an image were inherently misleading, then it could be game over for PhotoShop in advertising.

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